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by Suzanne Vernon
For the Pathfinder
November 13, 1997
The Korean War has been called "The Forgotten War," but the men who served there and survived, and the families of those who died there will always remember.
A new Korean War Memorial which pays tribute to more than 138 Montanans who died in that conflict, was dedicated in Missoula on June 14 this year. Boyd Kessler of Condon, who served in Korea in 1950, helped establish that Memorial.
"Like they say, it was a forgotten war, and it always will be," Kessler said recently. He helped with the Korean War Memorial as a tribute to a friend, Bob Cooper, who died in the war.
The Korean War began in 1950, shortly after World War II had ended. "It didn't hold a candle to the second World War," Kessler remembered. "They didn't call it a war, they called it a police action. . . but when people die, it's war."
More than 54,000 Americans were killed in Korea during the war that lasted from June of 1950 through the summer of 1953. Another 103,284 were wounded and 8,177 were missing in action.
Kessler and several of his buddies enlisted in the Army after graduating from Powell County High School in Deer Lodge in 1948. They weren't afraid, he said.
"You don't visualize what war is until you get in it yourself," he explained.
Kessler remembers the few months he spent in Korea, as part of the Army's 2nd Divisionwhen the brutal conflict between North and South Korea began. His section, part of the 37th Field Artillery Battallion, arrived in South Korea in June of 1950.
Bob Cooper, Kessler's close friend from high school, was also sent to Korea. Cooper was killed there, barely a month and a half after he arrived. A few months later, Kessler himself was wounded and flown back to the states.
"You're not scared at that age," Kessler said, reflecting on his youth. "They couldn't hurt us, I thought. It never really bothered me too much until Bob got killed. That affected me. That told me that this was for real."
Kessler and the other men in his section had seen death all over, but none so close as what happened at Kunu-ri on November 29, 1950. American troops were fleeing Chinese and North Koreans who had advanced and nearly surrounded them. As the Americans attempted to escape through a high pass, thousands died as the Chinese fired upon the long column of trucks winding their way slowly through the mountains.
"It was a mess. People were pulling the wounded off the trucks, and the Chinese were firing into the trucks," Kessler explained. A friend of his from Arizona, Sondoval, was hit in the stomach by a piece of mortar shell. As Kessler tried to find help for him, he, too, was hit by small arms fire. Kessler crawled off the truck to find the section chief to help his friend, and then managed to crawl onto the back of another truck. By a twist of fate, the move saved his life. "Our truck took a direct hit. The guys I'd been in with since I'd been in the service were killed right there." he said.
The truck Kessler was on made it out of Kunu-ri to a MASH unit, and he was flown to Japan and then back to Madigan General Hospital near Tacoma, Washington, where he spent a full year recovering from his wounds.
It was there, during an 8-hour leave, that he met his future wife, Virginia. She had also suffered because of the war's tragedy. Her husband had been killed in Korea. By another twist of fate, Kessler had known him.
During a 2nd Division reunion four years ago in Tacoma, veterans and their families were remembered. Virginia Kessler received a citation from the Korean government, honoring her first husband and his sacrifice for that country.
It was at that reunion that Boyd learned about the effort to establish a Korean War Memorial. He later volunteered to help with Montana's Memorial, now located in Missoula's Rose Garden. Kessler and several other veterans were interviewed for an article in the Missoulian last summer, and their war experiences were also written up in a Memorial Dedication booklet. Kessler is humble about his experience, and says his memories will always pale in comparison to the experiences of those who served in World War II.
"I had never told anybody about anything after all those years, until the interview with the Missoulian. I probably still wouldn't talk about it if they hadn't wanted an interview," he said. He acknowleges that people should be told the stories of the Korean War, along with accounts of the Civil War, World War I and II, Vietnam, Grenada and the Persian Gulf.
"It's history. It's the way people are going to learn," he said.
Men of War
By Briana Kessler
The men of Montana that died for us,
deserve this memorial.
We want to thank you guys,
for dying for us.
You stand for the stars and stripes of our flag.
You also stand for the freedom we have.
We wish you could still be alive,
so we could honor you in person.
But instead we are going to have a memorial
and parade for you.
Thanks again for fighting for our country.
Briana Kessler, Age 11, attends Swan Valley Elementary School. Her poem, Men or War, was published in the Korean War Memorial Dedication booklet.
The Swan Valley Post #63 of the American Legion conducted Veterans' Day ceremonies last Monday at the Swan Valley Community Hall.
About 40 people attended the program, including students from the Salmon Prairie School and area home schools. Post chaplain Andy Hammer gave the opening prayer and benediction. Bob Kaser lowered the flag to half mast while Dale Aldrich gave roll call. Bugler for the ceremonies was John Kessler. Post commander Bob Reed read the following history of Veteran's Day during the ceremony, for the benefit of students in attendance.
"In 1921, an American soldierhis name known but to Godwas buried on a Virginia hillside overlooking the Potomac River and the city of Washington. The Arlington National Cemetery burial site of this unknown World War I soldier became the personification of dignity and reverence for America's veterans.
"Similar ceremonies occurred earlier in England and France, where an "unknown soldier" was buried in each nation's highest place of honor.
"These memorial gestures all took place on November 11, giving universal recognition to the celebrated ending of World War I hostilities at 11 a.m., November 11, 1918 (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month). The day became known as "Armistice Day."
"Armistice Day officially received its name in America in 1926 through a Congressional resolution. It became a national holiday 12 years later by similar Congressional action.
"If the idealistic hope had been realized that World War I was the "war to end all wars" November 11 might still be called Armistice Day. But shortly after the holiday was proclaimed, World War II broke out in Europe and shattered the dream. Sixteen and one-half million Americans took part. Four hundred and six thousand died. The families and friends of these dead longed for a way to honor their memory.
"An answer to the dilemma of how to pay tribute to those who had served in this latest, great war came in a proposal made by Representative Edwin K. Rees of Kansas: Change Armistice Day to Veterans Day, and make this an occasion to honor those who have served America in all wars.
"President Eisenhower, in 1954, signed the bill proclaiming November 11 as Veterans Day, and he called for Americans everywhere to rededicate themselves to the cause of peace."
Reed noted that Veterans Day is a time to honor America's veterans from all past conflicts, including the Korean War, the Vietnam war, the Persian Gulf war and others.
The American Legion Auxiliary served coffee and cookies for all inattendance following the cermony.